As summer officially begins, air traffic between Puerto Rico and other parts of the world – mainly the United States – increases the possibility that travelers infected with the coronavirus entering the island through airports affect the relatively low spread of COVID-19 on the island, experts told El Nuevo Día.
Recent cases of small outbreaks recorded in Ciales and Canóvanas show a common factor: people living in the United States who arrived on the island.
The large number of Puerto Ricans living in the United States – estimated at 5.6 million by 2017 – and the expectation of more visitors to the island as international tourism resumes on July 15, could create the perfect situation for contagion to escalate if Puerto Rico does not implement strict measures at airports and other entry points to detect those infected and avoid outbreaks.
“There are places in the United States, such as New York, Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Philadelphia, Hartford, and New Jersey, where the risk is higher because they have many positive cases and many Puerto Ricans live there. These are areas of great concern for tourists as well,” said infectious disease doctor Miguel Colón.
Although New York was, until now, the epicenter of COVID-19 contagion in the United States, between Thursday and yesterday, Florida recorded 14,572 positive cases after three consecutive records: 3,207 on Thursday, 3,822 on Friday, and 4,049 on Saturday, according to EFE based on data from the state’s Health Department.
Colón, who recently went to Florida, said that during his stay he saw a large number of people without masks, one of the recommended measures to minimize the risk of contagion.
“We can’t deny them (people) the entry to the island, but we can be very aggressive (at airports) and ask where they are going to be in case a positive case is detected and we have to do ‘contact tracing,'” said Colón.
According to the infectious disease specialist, the recent COVID-19 outbreak in Ciales is something that could happen in different parts of the island. The outbreak was caused by a Puerto Rican resident in the United States who traveled to the island to care for her sick father and participated in several family events during her stay.
The woman died, and until Thursday, there were 15 cases confirmed, two of which required hospitalization, said Dr. Luis Mayol, an epidemiologist from the municipality of Ciales.
“The weight of all of this is in airport screening, which is the first line of defense to detect people infected,” Mayol said. “People should also be aware and postpone family gatherings until there is a cure or treatment,” he added.
Mayol said that seeking to strengthen case tracing, Ciales is in the process of establishing a partnership with the neighboring municipalities of Manatí, Barceloneta, and Morovis to share data that will help identify chains of infection.
In Canóvanas, meanwhile, they identified a similar case after a Puerto Rican residing in the mainland traveled to the island probably infected with the virus. According to Mayor Lornna Soto, until Friday, they had five people infected in connection to that case.
Soto said that in Canóvanas, they are monitoring 24 active cases. For the mayor, municipalities are in a difficult situation since they cannot force people who are infected or suspected of being infected to stay in their homes and self-isolate since that power is in the hands of the Health Secretary. So far, she said they are reviewing the Public Order Code to evaluate what restrictions and sanctions they could impose.
Concerns regarding the situation in Florida
Infectologist Jorge Santana is concerned about the effect the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in Florida could have in Puerto Rico.
“If all airports reopen and without the proper precautions we could see here what is happening in Florida. If precautions are not taken at the airport and a lot of people come, we are going to have problems,” said Santana, who urged to screen all passengers arriving on the island.
Pneumologist Luis Nieves Garrastegui agreed that airports continue to be the “most important” source of infection. He also added that the number of positive cases identified in Florida and other states with large Puerto Rican populations, such as Texas, represents a risk because of the possibility that they will travel to the island and infect others.
“We need to be stricter in monitoring airports. We can’t close them, but we can strengthen measures, such as the use of masks on the planes and at airports. And we can also strengthen molecular tests to everyone who enters the island,” said the former president of the Puerto Rican Pneumology Society.
He added that visitors coming from “COVID-19 hotspots” have to isolate for 14 days before interacting with other people.
“Everyone who enters should have the molecular test done and repeated on the fourth or fifth day. If the patient does not accept that then they should stay 14 days in isolation. We have to be stricter with the screening of people coming from those places,” he concluded.